How are unions adapting to changing workplaces?

As technology companies have created entire new sectors, like app-based gig work and online retail, new labor fights have emerged as well.

In 2019, unions sought to codify a California Supreme Court decision known as the Dynamex case, which set a high bar for when companies can categorize workers as freelancers. Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez introduced Assembly Bill 5, which would require an estimated 2 million workers, from gig workers to truck drivers, to be reclassified as employees — rather than independent contractors — and thus entitled to full employee benefits and workplace protections.

Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft sought a compromise, holding backchannel negotiations with the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union. In an open letter, Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi and Lyft co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer offered to form a new association to advocate for the drivers’ interests, among other incentives. Democrats and the California Labor Federation, the state’s association of unions, held firm.

That August, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order tasking a panel of labor and business representatives to draw up a new social compact for workers in a 21st century economy. Around the same time, Newsom signed AB 5 with a message making clear that he wanted to see more “pathways for more worker to form a union, collectively bargain to earn more, and to have a stronger voice at work — all while preserving flexibility and innovation.” 

Uber, Lyft and other gig companies responded with Proposition 22, a ballot measure that exempted many gig companies from AB 5. They spent a record-setting $206 million while labor groups put $20 million into the fight. Prop. 22 passed with 59% of the vote.

Since then, a California judge has ruled that Prop. 22 was unenforceable and unconstitutional. Uber and others announced plans to appeal. A federal appeals court ruled that drivers for food-delivery companies such as Grubhub can seek penalties for classifying workers as independent contractors before the passage of Prop. 22. Newsom’s former chief of staff Anne O’Leary suggests the fighting won’t stop until both sides compromise.

The latest front is Amazon warehouses. The Teamsters union announced it would mount a campaign to unionize Amazon workers across the country after a failed effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. Workers there could get a second vote

Labor advocates are already targeting Amazon, which employs more than 153,000 workers. Gonzalez’s AB 701 would make California the first state to require warehouses to disclose any quotas or work speed standards, as well as consequences for workers who fail to meet them. The governor signed the bill.

-Jackie Botts